It has been 23 days since I first saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but after watching it again yesterday, I decided it’s better late than never to spread the word about this film: if you haven’t yet seen it, drop what you’re doing and see it now—and if you’ve seen it already, see it again. Imaginarium is a film that only gets better with each additional viewing.
The first time I watched Imaginarium was the 11:00pm show at the ArcLight Cinemas on New Year’s Eve. I was one of a handful of people in the theatre (I suppose there are more exciting things to do at midnight in Hollywood), but I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my New Year’s than at the movies, and with one of my favorite actors in his last screen role. It’s true I’d been looking forward to this film since I first heard of it, and tragically, that was the same day I heard about Heath Ledger’s untimely death two years ago. But it wasn’t just for Ledger’s sake I was looking so forward to the film, but because it was also directed by one of my favorite directors, Terry Gilliam.
It is a miracle in itself that Imaginarium was ever completed. Poor Terry Gilliam has had the worst luck of any director on record; his luck is so poor that one of his films, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, never actually made it all the way through production, and a feature-length documentary film was made on the whole absurdity of the movie’s failure to be. Lost in La Mancha might’ve had a sequel in Lost in the Imaginarium if a few good-hearted souls hadn’t stepped in to save Ledger’s last film before the ship could sink.
Though Ledger died in the middle of the filming of Imaginarium, his screen presence remains throughout the film, and the plot of the movie wasn’t compromised to explain why his appearance changes three times throughout.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus stars Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, a man cursed by the devil after trading immortality for a price—his first-born. Tom Waits makes a wonderfully charismatic devil in Mr. Nick; as the film opens, Mr. Nick has come to collect Doctor Parnassus’s daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). By this time, Doctor Parnassus has aged some 1,000 years, and is alarmed that Mr. Nick has arrived to collect two days before the scheduled date—Valentina’s 16th birthday. But the devil has an agenda. He is willing to put off collecting Valentina for two days if Doctor Parnassus can deliver him five souls through his magic mirror, the Imaginarium.
The doctor travels throughout London in a caravan pulled by a team of black horses. The caravan opens to reveal a stage, which appears to be nothing more than a sideshow entertaining the scant crowds of drunken passers-by; but should a person enter the false mirror, they will encounter a world created of their own imagination. Doctor Parnassus shares the stage with his daughter, a boy named Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Percy (Verne Troyer), a smart-talking little person. This motley crew is passing over a bridge when they come upon a man apparently hung until dead by a noose. After pulling the stranger onto the bridge, Valentina and Anton find he is not dead and throw him into a trunk until he wakes up. The man turns out to be Tony (Heath Ledger), and to repay them for saving his life (as well as stay anonymous), Tony helps the dismal act attract an audience to the Imaginarium.
Though no one who works for Doctor Parnassus is supposed to go through the Imaginarium, each of them invariably does for one reason or another, and it’s during each of these forays into the mirror that the character Tony is played by a different actor: first Johnny Depp, then Jude Law, and finally, Colin Farrell. A person is not supposed to enter the Imaginarium with someone else, and it’s for this reason Tony’s face first changes; upon convincing his first “customer” to enter the Imaginarium, he decides to peek inside the mirror himself, and the lady imagines him with a different face.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is full of inventive elements, both in story and scene; we should expect nothing less from the director of Brazil and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. From the tale of how the universe is kept alive through the telling of stories, to the varying dream-like visuals inside the Imaginarium itself, the film inspires the viewer’s imagination. Metaphor is plucked like a dandelion and served on a dish of color.
In the first scene where Ledger’s role is taken over by another actor, Johnny Depp is given a line that resonates long after the final curtain: “Nothing is permanent, not even death.” Though it suits the character of Tony perfectly, one cannot help but feel this line was written after Ledger’s passing, and is a tribute to his cheating death by living again on the silver screen. In any other movie, the story would’ve fallen apart with the death of one of its pivotal actors. Thanks to the weird and wonderful vision of Gilliam, Imaginarium is turned not just into one of the director’s most cohesive films, but a movie to be celebrated for its ingenuity and preservation of Ledger’s performance. As Tony, Ledger deftly masters an English brogue, and an underlying glimmer of his Joker performance is blended into Tony’s eccentricities to subtly foreshadow the movie’s climax. Yes, we wonder what might’ve been, but we must marvel at what is: Imaginarium triumphs as a lasting tribute to one of the greatest actors of a generation, and stands as a film worthy of accentuating Ledger’s list of lifetime achievements.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is playing currently at the Carmike Beverly Cinema in Champaign for a limited time.